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Federal Government Launches $2 Billion Anti-Drug Media Campaign


July-August 1998

On July 9 in Atlanta, President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) ceremoniously launched a five-year, $2 billion anti-drug media campaign (James Bennet, "Clinton and Gingrich Unite Against Drugs," New York Times, July 10, 1998, p. A10; Gary Fields and Carrie Hedges, "Drug ads blitz: A wake-up call," USA Today, July 10, 1998, p. A1; Elizabeth Shogren, "Clinton, Gingrich Drug Plan Hits the Air," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), July 10, 1998, p. A5; Harry Berkowitz, "U.S. to start TV antidrug ads tonight," Philadelphia Inquirer, July 9, 1998, p. A11; Francine Kiefer, "Clinton's Antidrug Plan: $2 Billion Ad Blitz," Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 1998, p. 1).

The advertising campaign is cosponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The campaign includes $195 million a year in federal money, to be matched by newspapers and other media organizations providing an equal dollar value of free airtime and print-space. So far, more than 200 advertising agencies have created 400 ads free of charge. The campaign is part of the 1998 National Drug Control Strategy (see "$17.1 Billion 1998 National Drug Control Strategy Claims Youth as Top Priority," NewsBriefs, February 1998).

Clinton said the advertisements "are designed to knock America upside the head." Gingrich touted the campaign's "bipartisan basis."

The campaign also has bipartisan criticism. "Advertisements alone are not enough," said U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), who advocates longer sentences for drug offenders and stronger crop eradication efforts in drug-producing countries (Gary Fields and Carrie Hedges, "Anti-drug ads' efficacy in dispute," USA Today, July 10, 1998, p. 11A).

Lawrence Wallack, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley, said, "It's the kind of strategy that makes everyone feel like something is being done ... but it is just not sufficient to have an impact on the problem."

The Houston Chronicle said, "Whether young, high minds can be won by the hype is a serious question. And why, critics have asked, isn't alcohol abuse included in the messages" (Editorial, "If $1 billion doesn't work, let's just bump it to a trillion," Houston Chronicle, July 10, 1998).


The $2 billion ad campaign may be built on dubious data and may waste tax dollars on inefficient advertising, according to a report in Brandweek, a weekly magazine for the marketing industry. "Before a company like General Motors or Colgate-Palmolive goes out and spends $100 million on an advertising campaign, they do massive amounts of state-of the-art quantitative and qualitative research, producing data that determines how best to communicate to the target audience. But with the PDFA/White House effort, that data is simply gossamer," said Brandweek (Daniel Hill, "Drug Money," Brandweek, April 27, 1998, pp. 20-28).

Nora Roach, a public affairs representative at PDFA, told NewsBriefs that the overall strategy of their advertisements is "deglamorizing illicit drugs." However, some researchers, including Dr. Joel Brown of the University of California at Berkeley, believe that "deglamorization" is nothing more than scare tactics which may backfire. Brown told NewsBriefs that his research has shown that "fear arousal tactics form one of the major components of current programming. ... They are more subtle than they used to be, but they are intended to scare youth into not using substances which has repeatedly shown to be ineffective -- even harmful."

Alan Levitt, senior advisor and chief of the drug education at ONDCP, told NewsBriefs that the Brandweek article "Omitted integral components of the campaign. It took things out of context in such a way that it seems to have consistently and deliberately distorted facts about our media campaign." Levitt also said that the article did not mention that half of the ad campaign is directed not at children but at those who can most directly influence them not to use drugs, such as teachers, parents, and coaches.

PDFA points to three studies which it claims support the effectiveness of anti-drug ads in reducing juvenile drug use. The first study was led by Dr. Evelyn Cohen Reis. Entitled "The Impact of Anti-Drug Advertising," Reis conducted the research for her post-residency fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. According to Brandweek, Reis admits that one cannot tell, based on her paper, whether such advertising works. Because the study used questionnaires to gather information, the results may be unreliable because of the statistical problem of "self-reporting," in which respondents are inclined to give a socially acceptable answer instead of the truth.

The second study was written by Lauren Block, a marketing professor at New York University. According to the Brandweek article, Block recognized in the study that it would be difficult to generalize its results to a larger population of adolescents. The populations taken for the study, especially those of minorities, do not resemble the nation's as a whole. Another problem is that the adolescents surveyed were approached in malls, creating an unrepresentative sample of the population. Block told NewsBriefs that she and her colleagues are "in the process of revising" the paper, explaining that she withdrew the original study from consideration for publication because she wanted to make it more sophisticated.

The author of the third study, Professor Lloyd Johnston at the University of Michigan, who directs the annual Monitoring the Future Survey on adolescent drug use, believes that anti-drug advertising is effective, but that it is not going to singularly reduce drug use. He said, "Advertising is only one, and not the strongest influence."

Steven Donziger, policy director of the New York-based Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, told NewsBriefs that research indicates such ads are counterproductive because they unintentionally encourage experimentation with the drugs they are trying to stigmatize. "Research shows that the target audience are in a period in their lives where they're open to experimentation and rebellious behavior," Donziger said, "The ads do not speak honestly to adolescents. Many have already experimented. They know when they see ads that demonize the use of all illicit drugs ... that they're not being honest."

This zero-tolerance message may be one of the main causes of the ineffectiveness of school anti-drug programs, according to recent research. A study of California public school students called "Substances and Social Power in Drug Education," which surveyed and interviewed over 5,000 students, concluded that kids distrust zero-tolerance programs, viewing them as authoritarian. Many kids also feel that they are being deceived about the dangers of drug use ("California's Drug Education Programs Ineffective, According to Study Commissioned by the State," NewsBriefs, March-April 1997).

Joel Brown, Ph.D., coauthor of the California study, told NewsBriefs that instead of the current strategy which focuses exclusively on how bad drugs are, he recommends educating children with a combined youth development approach (which focuses on their individual capacities) and harm reduction (which recognizes the ill effects of drug use in the context of reducing their harmfulness if they are used, without condoning drug use).

Lawrence Wallack - 318 Warren Hall, School of Public Health, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, Tel: (510) 642-1723.

Lauren Block, Professor of Marketing - Management Education Center, 44 West 4th Street, New York University, New York, NY 10012, Tel: (212) 998-0535, Fax: (212) 995-4006.

Joel Brown, PhD, Executive Director, Center for Educational Research and Development, UC Berkeley, 1620 Belvedere Ave., Berkeley, CA 94702, Tel: (510) 559-8112, E-mail <>.

Alan Levitt - Executive Office of the President, Office of National Drug Control Policy, 750 17th Street, NW, 8th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20503, Tel: (202) 395-6794, Fax: (202) 395-6744.

Partnership for a Drug-Free America - 405 Lexington Ave. 16th Floor, New York, NY 10174, Tel: (212) 922-1560, Web: <>.

Brandweek - David Kiley, Editorial Offices, 1515 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10036, Tel: (212) 536-6451, Fax: (212) 536-1416.

Stephen Donziger - Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, 14 West 68th St., New York, NY 10023-6031, Tel: (212) 362-1964, Fax: (212) 362-3137, Web: <>.